Monday, August 28, 2006

My First Job

My first job was as a seemingly lofty designation of Center Manager of a training firm. This place had 4 employees in all, a receptionist, a general dog’s body (also known as a peon in India), a trainer and I as Jill of all trades. My Mother was dead against me working in some sleepy backward town but my Grandmother encouraged me to go and find my bearings after being sheltered for two decades and some. I loved the idea of staying alone and experiencing the unknown quite like the Fool in the Tarot story.

After many arguments, my mother relented and brought first class tickets on a train called Black Diamond and she offered to reach me and settle me into whatever accommodation had been arranged. The 'first class' experience on Black Diamond was interesting, carpeted floors, the train attendants appeared to be dressed in clothes from the British Raj era, spacious seating and a choice of food, tea and coffee. The first class compartment seemed to be full of potbellied bespectacled gentlemen who probably held senior management positions in the steel and coal plants in the Durgapur - Ranigunj - Asansol regions.

We managed to get a taxi to take us to our destination, some address in City Center. The car came to a halt in front of a half built house with tall knee high grass growing in front of it. A rusty motorbike was parked in front which was probably the only sign of habitation. I got down, waded through grass and found a calling bell and pressed with all my might. The door opened and an old gentleman stepped out, we introduced ourselves and then realization dawned. He scurried to get the keys and opened the room in front of the house facing the road (and the grass). The room was dingy, dark, had a fan, a tube light, a functional bed with four legs, a table and a chair. The toilet was even more dingy with barely a beam of sunlight fighting its way though a dirty glass window. My Mother let out what seemed to be a wail of despair while I smiled and blissfully left it to her to manage. The landlord (the old gentleman) warned us of dire consequences if we left the fan on after stepping out of the house or cooked inside the room using a kerosene stove. My Mother, enterprising as she is, managed to find a person who would provide cooked meals thrice a day so I would not have to cook.

The 'office' was a better place in comparison, it was a residential property which was turned into class rooms to train people to be computer literate and become programmers. The 'receptionist' was a friendly girl names Sharmistha, the 'peon' was a sinister looking person named Tarak, who (I later learnt) peddled XXX videos to men and women who had such tastes. The trainer was an Amir Khan look alike called Shantanu who I immediately fell for! I was given my brief by the 'Boss' who owned the franchise - another shady looking businessman who (I later learnt) always kept a pack of French letters handy, I forget his name now. Later Sharmistha told me to be careful as she had already been propositioned by the boss. Well all in a day's work as they say!

My Mother left after a week - the little room seemed emptier, there was no TV, only my Sony world receiver which helped me to keep in touch with the world. I brought along a cookery book and looking at it made me miserable but still I turned pages and drooled over pictures of lemon tarts and shepherd's pies and tried to assuage my cravings vicariously while I ate bullet like rice with watery dal (lentil soup), mushy characterless vegetable and a smelly fish. Most of my lunches and dinners were fed to a dog and her new born litter of pups. Over the next eight months I saw them grown into confident young puppies and Mama Dog gave up hunting for food as she had a benevolent provider at hand. The Papa dog was never seen in the vicinity and was perhaps making merry with the other bitches.

The monsoons came along with torrential rains, the grass in front of my door grew taller, the earthworms crept up into my room for a dry place and plenty of frogs hopped in the moment I opened the door. I could not bear the thought of spending nights with frogs who has no intention of turning into princes so I led them Pied Piper like into the toilet and swept them into the Indian toilet with a broom and flushed them to a watery end. The numerous earthworms met a salty end as I had read somewhere that if one sprinkles salt over all kinds of creepy crawlies they shrivel up and die.

The monsoons went and the grass turned into a field of 'kash phool' (a kind of wild flower which blooms in October), the sun was fierce and I wore my new bright orange dress and was walking down the street humming a song. I was in for a nasty surprise, a bull snorted angrily and started coming towards me menacingly and I still remember running for dear life and 200 meters seemed like a never ending stretch of 2000 kilo meters. I have never worn bright orange after that incident!

In the meantime I had managed to strike up a friendship with the landlord's daughter and watched some TV in the evenings which was better than sitting alone with nothing much to do. Shantanu used to take me for long rides on his bike all around Durgapur but his parents sensed a budding romance and strictly forbade him to go around with a spoilt city girl and I will not go further into that story. Sharmistha, Shantanu and I were good friends - as one usually is when they are thrown together in difficult situations, we had a lot of fun, we cooked together, went for picnics, watched an XXX movie at Shantanu's house (my first) courtesy Tarak which was more hilarious than erotic and had all of us in splits.

Every alternate weekend I traveled back to Calcutta, took a rickety bus which had people sitting on the roof and unlikely co passengers like some sheep and goats all packed in like sardines. On reaching Burdwan, I used to buy some 'mihi dana' which is a specialty and then board the local train to Calcutta - at times without a ticket! In course of another few months, the novelty of living alone and a job which had no future or challenges wore off and I finally bade farewell to the friends and acquaintances and came back home for a better job. I learnt a lot of lessons during that stint, some small and some big which helped me deal with situations along the way.

Now when I sit in my plush office with a laptop and all the trappings of the good life that this job provides, I remember my humble beginnings and the immense excitement and adventure that went along with it. It’s been a wonderful journey so far where India and I have progressed together and I hope we reach the greater heights together as well...

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Amusement Parks: Universal Studios Hollywood

Los Angeles is a great place to be in, especially if one has to fill the long lonely weekends with something interesting to do. Most of my Friday evening was spent in browsing to chart out my itinerary to my destination by bus and train. I diligently wrote down the bus numbers and directions so I did not get lost. Los Angeles can be quite cumbersome without a car I was told but I managed fabulously with a $3 Metro Day Pass and my legs filled in for the rest.

The first amusement part I visited was Universal Studios; I took the red line train from Hollywood and Vine to Universal. I emerged and wondered what to do next and just followed the crowd who must be heading towards the park. I waited at the shuttle bus stop and a white and blue four carriage long tram like bus came along shortly and I boarded with a ho-mum-bored attitude. The bus started its ascent towards the studio and as it climbed, my interest grew. The studios were situated on a top of a hill and the panoramic view was great. The bus came to a halt in front of the entrance, I spent some time walking up and down 'Citywalk' which was a collection of souvenir shops, cafes, restaurants and movie theaters trying to find a camera. The disposable cameras did not look too appealing so my friends and relatives would just have to take my word that I had visited Universal in absence of tangible proof in form of photographs.

After finding absolutely nothing to buy, I headed towards the ticket counter and bought a general pass, there was a 'first class pass' which guaranteed the first position in any queue for double the price but I had a lot of time to kill so did not feel the need for it. On entering I was assailed by what I call the 'amusement park smell' which is an amalgamation of odors emanating from fries, waffles, ice-creams, hot dogs and pop corn, which put me off food altogether - at least the kind that was available in park seemed revolting to say the least and if something looked remotely appetizing, the portions were far too large for me to finish.

I walked along trying to figure out a landmark from the map I had and stood in the first queue I came across which turned out to be Shrek 4D. With swarms of kids and families everywhere I felt even more miserable while in queues. The queues thankfully are fast moving so I didn't have much time to wallow in self pity. The Shrek show was rather cute where the earth shook while horses galloped and you felt Shrek's spit when he sneezed and nearly jumped out of your seat when the mice ran over your feet and something seemed to come straight at you.

The next ride was the Studio Tour which was the most wonderful part of the Universal experience, though the wait in this queue is probably the longest. The bus took us around the various stages which are numbered and where some famous stars were currently shooting for some up coming movies - we just heard about them but didn't see any. Next the bus took us around the 'facades' which were dummy buildings complete with doors, windows, curtains, signboards and so on. The streets had strategically placed mail boxes, street lights, trash bins - all made of cardboard or some such thing and managed to looks so real. The tour guide said that these facades could be remodeled to depict a street in any country and any period back in time. She rattled off the names of some movies which were shot in these streets but I can’t remember their names now.

Next the bus entered a dark looking shed when suddenly the bus started shaking, the whole place seemed to disintegrate, two trains were about to collide and it seemed that a truck would land right on top of the bus but of course we were saved just in time. This was the earthquake zone where we were shown how such scenes in movies are simulated. Next we entered another dark looking cave which was the King Kong zone where there King Kong ranted and raved like a maniac looking ferocious with big red eyed and sharp teeth.

Talking about natural calamities, floods can’t be ignored; they have their rightful place in the movies too. The bus drove along at a leisurely pace along the winding streets of a street with a look and feel of a Mexican village and suddenly we experienced 'torrential rains, dark skies, gusty winds, thunder, lightening and floodwaters gushing towards us. If I didn't know that this was a studio I would quite certainly be swept away and drown in the floods - they looked that real. The skies cleared magically and we moved on through the Jurassic Park jungle which had some watery and creepy sounds and then on to some exhibits of cars used in movies which overturn, burst into flames and were used for many famous chases in many famous movies. There was also an exhibit of Fast & the Furious: Tokyo Drift which was then just about to be released - the bus remained rooted there for 5 minutes so all of us knew that this movie was opening in theaters soon.

We passed through many bungalows where the stars of the yesteryears stayed during movie shoots; these are now used as offices by various producers. We saw the New York Central Park which is probably the size of backyard garden (okay it wasn't that small!) in this studio. For movies using New York Central Park, aerial shots are taken of the actual park and then fitted in with this park where people are shown walking around or sitting on benches.

Next was the water tank for the movie 'Jaws' where all the underwater shooting was done, there were some unexpected surprises as well when the bridge 'collapsed' and a rusty tin shark opened its jaws wide to make a meal of all the passengers and fires came up everywhere. Well we lived through this one as well and moved on to the next calamity - the house on the hill or the 'Psycho House' which has been carefully preserved. Thankfully no showers were turned on and no one crept up from behind!

War of the Worlds was next where the set was created by actually blowing up a fully created set to pieces. There were half burnt cars, broken houses, a broken aero plane, smashed coke cans, torn curtains and so on. It was a very real looking set which was used for the movie.

The bus then passed through a very pretty looking lane lined with houses on both sides with gardens in front, the houses were real and not facades and it looked very familiar - I had seen this before I told myself, Was it deja vu, past life memories? Well of course not! It turned out to be Wisteria Lane from Desperate Housewives - no wonder as I watch it religiously every week. ABC has exclusive use of this part of the studio and people are not allowed inside except for the Studio Tour buses.

The last stop was the huge white backdrop which is used for backdrops in many movies - King Kong against the blue sky was this back drop and then it was a drive down the memory lane where there were posters of movies from 1920s to 2006. This was probably the best exposure for movie goers to the world of movie making with ingredients of drama, surprise and magic.

Another interesting show was the Special Effect Stages where we were shown how visual and audio special effects are created and gained some more insights into the world of movie making. The Jurassic park ride was entertaining as well where one had all kinds of dinosaurs popping up unexpectedly and some spewing water at the gawkers. I had very unusual company of two Tibetan monks who were seated in the same row as me for this ride. Walking through the Lucy Tribute was nostalgic too. The 'Revenge of the Mummy' ride was an awesome rollercoaster ride where one has no idea about the direction where one is going. The only disadvantage is that one has to deposit all hand baggage in the lockers outside.

The rides up and down the escalators gave me a good view; there are three escalators one after another which connect the lower level to the upper level. On the upper level I tried some more rides like Back to the Future which was modeled on the movie, which was good but not great and definitely worth a miss. Van Hesling and Waterworld are good too if one is so inclined. I didn't have time to see Terminator 2 and Backdraft shows so I cannot comment much on them, gives me an excuse to go back another time (Dave are you listening?)!

As for food options, there were plenty. I chose Panda Express broccoli, beef and noodles which passed muster and assuaged my craving for something Asian, next was a Ben & Jerry waffle cone which was too large for me to handle but I tried my best while sitting on a foot massage seat soothing my aching feet and doing justice to my ice-cream which ultimately went to the trash bin half eaten - I long for it now! There are plenty of souvenir shops with Marvel merchandize and an array of colorful basketballs with Superman, Shrek and Spongebob pictures which seemed worth buying. By the time I was done it was close to 9 PM and I was ready to drop with amusement park fatigue but I loved every minute of my first experience of an amusement park.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Tears for Men?

If we must shed tears then they are perhaps better utilized the hungry and starving children of this planet rather than waste them over men.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Let there be Light

Every day I considered myself lucky to have this beautiful mountain just outside my window, I felt strong just by looking at it. The mountain was omnipresent in my life, my dreams, decisions and actions were derived from the strength that this mountain gave me. I often looked up with wonderment and admired its height, magnificence, majesty, beauty and the general halo that surrounded it. It made me aim higher and strive for more in life.

One day there was a tremendous storm with a heavy cloudburst and when the light of the day finally dawned, I looked out of my window to find that my mountain had disappeared. I was devastated to find that my mountain was just a heap of volcanic ash which had stood high in a perfect world but collapsed under the vagaries of life and nature. Perhaps it was my belief which helped it to stand for this long.

What I did not realize was that my mountain blocked light out of my life; it limited my vision and limited my aspirations. Now the horizon is mine to conquer, there are bigger dreams to dream and greater heights to scale and I am thankful to my mountain who taught me to think and dream big and instill in me the belief that dreams do come true if one wants it enough...

Friday, August 04, 2006

My Great Aunt

My Mother's maternal aunt was deaf and dumb, she was born that way and just because she was special, she was her Mother's pet. There was no great love lost between her brothers and sisters due to the sibling rivalry - the other children were jealous because she always got everything and all the attention while others - all seven of them, felt alienated.

In my childhood, I always looked forward to going to their house in South Extension; it was a small barsati (a room on the terrace) which she and her husband had rented. The house was impeccably neat; shelves stacked neatly, photographs of her husband receiving various awards from Presidents and Prime Ministers of India proudly displayed and an array of potted plants on the terrace. Her husband was the President of the Deaf & Dumb Federation of India and my great aunt, being his second wife was suitably pampered by her husband. At times they had massive fights when the step children came to stay or visit and all those fights were executed at our residence where both husband and wife banged our dinner table gustily while arguing - my Mother once in a while tried to remind them that the table was ten years old but who cared!

Years passed, my father passed away, my Mother had to start working and there was no one to look after me (I was eleven years at that time). My own Grandmother had her life and duties in Calcutta so she could not come and stay with us permanently. It was a difficult situation but my Great Aunt saved the day by offering to travel all the way from Narayana to Defense Colony every day, cook and feed me and leave in the evening. For many months she made sure that I ate a hot meal every day after I returned from school and had a maternal figure watching over me while my Mother was away at work. I carried the house key as she could not hear the calling bell but one day I lost the house key and I remember banging the door for an hour before she opened quite by accident.

Later our finances improved and we could afford full time domestic help but she continued to come every now and then to check our well being. She always got some snacks whenever she came - without fail and I always looked forward to her visits and the snacks. She taught me sign language, she taught me to lip read, communicating with her was never a problem because she could read lips very well. She was a lively, aggressive and gutsy lady who could not care less if buses, cars or rickshaws honked and stopped in their tracks because she was crossing the street at her own pace. She would just show her hand and glare at the driver.

Her husband passed way mysteriously on a train, he was poisoned and robbed and one fine day her life changed suddenly. She had to return to Calcutta, her brothers and sisters tried their best to avoid her as they would have to offer food and shelter, she lived with us for a few months but we were a family of women and it was stressful for my mother to manage two elderly people. She moved to an old home and finally the step son who she had ill treated and shooed out of her domain offered shelter. Her health failed, she lost her spirit, she kept visiting us, she asked if we were all well and still she never forgot to get the snacks.

I got married; I had a baby while she became bedridden with old age. My Mother visited her sometimes and told me about how she was ill treated and neglected. My Great Aunt wanted to see my son and my Mother kept reminding me that I must go and show her my son. The line "Chele ke khub dekhte ichche kore" (I want to see your little boy) still haunts me for I never did make it, she died before I could visit her.

To this day I regret that I could not find time to go and visit someone who had left her everyday priorities and daily chores and come and looked after me when I needed her.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Stars Under my Feet

One must be quite used to seeing stars in the night sky, seeing stars when knocked out or seeing stars throwing starry tantrums and flashing plastic smiles. I kind of got used having stars under my feet while in Hollywood. Every time I walked down Hollywood Boulevard I read the names of the stars that fell under my feet (ha!). It seemed kind of sad to walk all over them so I walked around them as far as possible.

I was greeted by Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball the moment I stepped out of my apartment. I still remember the good old Door Darshan (the only channel on Indian television about 15 years back) days when they showed 'I Love Lucy' and hearing 'Strangers in the Night' on AIR (All India Radio) and dreaming about some mysterious man who would come and sweep me off my feet (never turned up though!). I walked on some more and met Cary Grant who I fell in love with after watching 'The Rear Window' and I reverently stood and mooned a bit in front of his star.

When I had time to look up, I saw shops; there were plenty of shops selling everything from cannabis free cigarettes, incense and oils, tattoos to risqué lingerie. The first kilometer or so I was convinced that this is not such a good part of town but it gets better as one walks towards La Brea. Most shops seemed to be closed our out of business with shutters down. The shutters were painted with pictures of Mickey Rooney and Humphrey Bogart etc so it was good looking at the shutters too - I truly felt I was in tinsel town with stars twinkling everywhere.

I stood in front of Humphrey Bogart and bemoaned the state of love and romance as it is today. 'Casablanca' is perhaps the most perfect and poignant romantic movie I have ever seen, perhaps that’s why movies are made, to let us dream and live in a perfect world momentarily and forget the harsh realities of life. Which probably explains why I have seen 'Casablanca' five times and 'Sleepless in Seattle' 3 times and 'Come September' about nine times. *Sigh* I passed by Rock Hudson and rued the loss to womankind in general and wondered why men always have the best of everything - including the best looking men

While walking I got hungry and stopped for snacks at Popeye’s for some chicken wings and then at Greco's Deli Pizza for a pizza by slice which was good but not exceptional. I walked by some old buildings which were probably booming cinemas a few years back, I walked by Disney Cinemas which seemed to be very popular and then past 'Ripley's Believe it or Not' which had a tap in mid air with no support with water gushing out of it, however I didn't venture in. This area seemed to be a more happening part of town, full of tourists from all over the world who constantly kept stopping in their tracks to take pictures of the stars. When one is trying to walk fast this is the last place one should try it.

I crossed the street to the other side of Hollywood Boulevard and walked past some studios, and then Mann's Chinese Theater which is a pagoda like structure. There were some characters performing on the street, probably related to the movies playing in the cinemas. A ferocious looking samurai with a sword suddenly broke into a smile and greeted me with a 'Namaste' which left me beaming. Right in front of Mann's Theater there were foot and hand prints along with printed good wishes in concrete from many stars to the founder of the theater. I put my hands in Gregory Peck's hands and remembered some of the spellbinding moments I had spent with him on the silver screen. A little ahead there was the Kodak Theater, where some of the most prestigious award ceremonies are held including Oscars, the most recent one being the American Idol event. The theater complex is full of shops and cafes and generally a good place to hang out if one has nothing much to do. I entered and walked up to the entrance which was barricaded and I saw some very elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen hurriedly entering the door and a thousand flashbulbs going off the moment they did. Maybe I saw some stars for real as well but I would not really know who I saw!

I walked on and gave in to the temptations of sizzling hotdogs being sold on the pavements and watching all kinds of performers doing all kinds of things to convince the tourists to part with some of their money. I stopped at Starbucks (again appropriately named!) and had some frappuccino and walked on towards Hollywood/Vine. The walk was uneventful till I bumped into this very good looking man who offered me a free personality test. I fell straight for a handsome face and right into the trap of Scientology. After answering all 200 questions I was given my assessment, I was told that I was downright stubborn (okay - I agree), kept a LOT within myself (I agree somewhat) and I am a poor communicator (I STRONGLY disagree). The counselor told me that I probably had something to hide and though I communicated on the outside, the most important things were locked away within which was probably affecting my closest relationships. Ah..ummm....well.... god knows really but definitely worth thinking about a bit but I was kind of busier looking at the eye candy in front of me. Little did I know that all this was to hard sell courses targeted at my weak areas which I must do to have a more fulfilling life. Of course the course costs less than a pair of sunglasses - only $150. I kind of managed to slip away saying that I was just a poor software developer with a very meager allowance - I could barely afford to eat, forget about sunglasses (or courses). I still had to buy a book called 'Dianetics' and had to listen to Tom Cruise speaking about the wonders of Scientology.

After the Scientology adventure I ventured into a general store for some bread/food and the proprietor turned out to be a Bangladeshi gentleman who had migrated to the US 6 years back. It was nice speaking in Bengali after a while. While we were talking someone asked "What kind of language is that?" and we promptly chorused in unison "Bengali - the sweetest language and only parallel to French". The person said "At least it’s better than hearing Spanish all the time!" and walked off. The proprietor offered me a Hagen Daas ice cream and refused to accept payment for it. I was very touched.

My last stop on Hollywood Boulevard was the Pantages Theater where I had the privilege to watch 'Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat' - a musical by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. The hall was magnificent, the musical was even better - it was a biblical story about a boy named Joseph who dreamed big and made things happen. This was just the inspiration I needed to become an author, sell my movie rights and buy that dream house in Beverly Hills!